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A Primer to Demystify National Security Law in the News

Medill School of Journalism and the American Bar Association team up on new book

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November 30, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and with it, how American law and the First Amendment factor into the news coverage of the U.S. military, national security and the war on terrorism at home and abroad.

Are targeted killings and drone attacks legal against enemies on foreign soil in nations that are U.S. allies? What are the legal limits on government in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens? To what extent does the law allow cyber-surveillance of enemies -- or even, friends -- to keep the nation safe? Is harsh treatment in the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay legally permissible?

To help demystify the laws and policies of counterterrorism, the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication and the American Bar Association (ABA) have partnered on a new book released this week: “National Security Law in the News: A Guide for Journalists, Scholars, and Policymakers.” It was officially on display yesterday (Nov. 29) at the ABA’s Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law in Washington, D.C.

The co-editors are Medill lecturer Timothy J. McNulty, a former foreign and national editor and correspondent at the Chicago Tribune; Ellen Shearer, professor of journalism at Medill and director of Medill’s Washington program; and Paul Rosenzweig, a 2011 Carnegie Fellow in National Security Journalism at Medill and member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security. McNulty and Shearer are also co-directors of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative, which teamed up with the ABA Standing Committee to create this book.

Already, the book is getting praise from journalists and authors who cover national security, terrorism and intelligence matters.

“Throughout the last decade of war, American reporters have often struggled to understand and explain the tension between U.S. military and counterterrorism policies and the law,” observed James Risen, author of ”State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

“Their job has frequently been complicated by the fact that government officials have strong incentives to interpret the law in ways that favor the operations they are conducting. Finally, we now have a clear-eyed primer on national security law that can serve as an essential reference for journalists as they try to cut through the spin and get to the truth,” Risen wrote in a tribute to the book.

Examining a wide variety of issues, the book’s chapters are written with authority by seasoned experts and top officials who served at high levels of the military and government, including some who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

The book’s editors sought to make it authoritative and accessible to the general reader, as well as aiming for readability and precision. They also wanted to make it useful for journalists or policymakers, and each chapter not only gives the resources and references for its content but also a list of contacts with their emails to help with follow-up questions or interviews.

It’s something other journalists already have lauded. Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, had this to say about the book: “The days of getting ‘just-the-facts’ and limiting the scope of inquiry to ‘who-what-when-and-why’ have given way to a new era in which national security law reporters must now have to fear that either they or their sources may be prosecuted for spilling national security secrets. 

“Reporters now walk the tightrope between the country’s right to know and its need to defend itself. It’s a daunting challenge, but one of huge importance. Thank goodness there is now a thoughtful guide to help the press navigate these fascinating, complex and essential questions. Every reporter on the national security beat should keep this book within reach.”

Following is a Q & A with the editors of “National Security Law in the News.”

How did this book come about?

Timothy J. McNulty: This is part of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Medill. It grew out of talks between Ellen Shearer and me and our fellow editor, Paul Rosenzweig. As we talked among ourselves we thought so many journalists and others see the legal references to things, but if they haven’t gone to law school -- or even if they have -- they’re not likely to go to law books to get the context for the background on military commissions or the policy and rationale behind things like targeting killings -- because there is no actual law behind it. Or this could help with research on piracy, or the use of the military and National Guard, or the rules of war and why people follow them.

You can go through the whole list of topics. We thought if we could get top men and women in their field to write a fairly concise but precise paper on the history, the context and the state of the law in dealing with those issues, that’s something that a journalist could use -- or a policymaker on Capitol Hill, or a public affairs officer in the military, or a student who wants a concise, authoritative, reference source. The whole notion was that this is something that is useful. It is vibrant, and it has real world impact for journalists and others.

What was your interest in doing the book?

Ellen Shearer: My interest in creating this book was the need for journalists to write with more knowledge and authority on such crucial issues as data mining, use of the military within the U.S., courts-martial in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings. Too often, reporters have to parachute into stories without adequate time to get the complicated legal background to understand what is going on.

I'm particularly concerned that increased government surveillance is not getting adequate, informed scrutiny from the media, because reporters don't know the law -- and that lack of knowledge means they can't adequately analyze what is legal and what may be a violation of civil liberties. I hope the impact will be lasting through use in classrooms as well as newsrooms.

What is the main purpose of this book?

Paul Rosenzweig: To my mind this book is about demystifying the law for the rest of the world. As a lawyer, I know we live in a bubble of specialized jargon, code and shared assumptions. One of the things I learned while I was a Carnegie Fellow at Medill last year is both how deeply interested journalists are in national security issues and, unfortunately, how woefully under-informed they were about things I thought were basic.  It isn't their fault -- nobody ever really helped them understand.  

But time and again I'd explain something and a student (or even a fellow professor) would react with, "Oh ...really?  I didn't realize that."  My goal in helping to put together this book was simply to create a better-informed cadre of journalists and, as a result, a better-informed citizenry.  By trying to take important legal concepts and explain them in simple, easy-to-understand terms, I hope that we have managed to give everyone (journalists, policy makers and practitioners) a baseline understanding of the historical and legal background -- and from there, we can really jump off to a good substantive discussion.